2014-04-12

Historical Jesus Scholarship in a “Neoliberal” World

by Neil Godfrey

jesus-in-an-age-of-neoliberalism2This post and several ensuing ones will be about what we can learn about historical Jesus scholarship from the book Jesus In An Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by Professor James Crossley.

The second half of this post addresses some background that readers should understand as they read my engagement with Crossley’s book. There I address Crossley’s personal animosity towards me and his conviction that my past treatment of his works has been grotesquely unfair.

Crossley’s main thesis is

to show how Jesus is a cultural icon in the sense that he is reconstructed by historians not simply as a figure for Galilee in the 20s and 30s but also, intentionally or not, as a figure for our ‘postmodern’ times. . . . (p. 8)

The thesis extends to arguing that the same Jesus becomes compatible with neoliberalism’s political agendas and very often subtly perpetuates “anti-Jewishness”.

[T]he emphasis could be placed on the greatest historic critic of our age, an obscure article in an evangelical journal or a rant on a blog: they all provide insight into our cultural contexts, irrespective of how good or bad they are. . . .

This book is at least as much about contemporary politics, ideology and culture as it is about Jesus, and in many ways, not least due to unfamiliar approaches in historical Jesus studies, this is almost inevitable. (pp. 8-10)

Obviously any cultural artefact provides insight into its cultural context, but when Crossley limits cultural context in his book to “postmodernism” and “neoliberalism” in their primarily political and racial-cultural manifestations I suspect he is presenting a two-dimensional perspective of scholarship. Quite often it appears his argument is another application of “parallelomania” in the sense that any scholarly interpretation that can be matched to a “neoliberal” or “postmodern” concept becomes the basis of his argument. His thesis would have been more deeply grounded had he been able to demonstrate more consistently, not just sporadically, how certain changes in views and presentations resulted from the direct interaction with political and cultural pressures.

Now I happen to agree with much of Crossley’s own political views. So in one major respect he had me onside from the beginning with Jesus In An Age of Neoliberalism, just as he did with his earlier companion book, Jesus in the Age of Terror. I found a number of aspects of his book insightful. I do think that in a number of instances he does make a sound case. Others, as I have indicated above, lacked rigour, were only superficially supported, ill-defined or simplistically conceived; and on occasion it seemed Crossley indulges in soap-box political declamations against his colleagues’ views while almost losing any solid relationship with historical Jesus studies. He appears to have assumed too much on the basis of partial evidence. Overall the book tends to read like an extended editorial opinion piece. So his preface overstates what follows when it says:

It is hoped that this book will establish the general case for the importance of the context of neoliberalism for understanding contemporary scholarship and for others to provide new case studies. This book is merely about certain examples of the impact of neoliberalism in understanding Jesus and contemporary scholarship. (pp. ix-x)

The “case studies” or “certain examples” in the book are of variable authenticity. Several names appear to have been dumped in the neoliberalism matrix with only superficial justifications that overlook evidence for alternative perspectives. Worst of all, one is left wondering if Crossley’s book is a thinly veiled swipe at scholarship that disagrees with his own (and his PhD supervisor Maurice Casey’s) problematic assumptions, methods and (even to some extent) conclusions about the historical Jesus and Christian origins. Unfortunately Crossley appears to have prepared in this book a rationale for dismissing anyone who disagrees with him on these points as “politically incorrect”.

But Crossley would protest:

I do not think that all historical Jesus scholarship is simply ‘reducible’ to an outworking of neoliberalism or simply historically wrong even if it does seem that way. I still have some sympathies with some fairly traditional modes of historical criticism and I am aware that there are strands of Jesus scholarship, and biblical scholarship, which can at least be felt threatening to power.(p. 14)

Examples of the latter are liberation theology in Latin America and works by Keith Whitelam and Nadia Abu El-Haj.

I hope to demonstrate what both the good and the not-so-good in this book tell us about contemporary Historical Jesus or Christian Origins scholarship.

In these posts (I expect they will be strung out over some weeks) I hope to point out where I think Crossley has got things spot on and where he could have got things a bit more spot on. More generally, I hope to demonstrate what both the good and the not-so-good in this book tell us about contemporary Historical Jesus or Christian Origins scholarship.

And I do invite James Crossley to notify me if at any point I misrepresent anything he has written and to explain clearly (civilly would be a bonus) exactly how I have done so.

So here we go.

read more »


2014-04-11

If you want to read about Jesus’ wife . . . .

by Neil Godfrey

. . . . then go to Peter Kirby’s blog where has a list of Blogs Abuzz for Jesus’ Wife.

I saw the Harvard Theological Review article was out around midnight last night so decided to shut down my computer and get some sleep.

Sorry, not interested.


2014-04-07

Is Oral Tradition Like the Old Telephone Game?

by Tim Widowfield
An early 20th century candlestick phone being ...

“Yes, Muriel, that’s exactly what he said: ‘Blessed are the cheese-makers.’”

Long distance runaround

In several of Bart Ehrman’s books on the New Testament, he likens the transmission of traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds to the old telephone game, or as our friends in the Commonwealth call it, Chinese whispers (now often considered offensive). He refers to this model in his lectures, too, telling it roughly the same way in at least three of the courses I’ve listened to. Sometimes, as in the latest text on Jesus’ divinity, How Jesus Became God (HJBG), he describes the process without naming it.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Ehrman’s boilerplate explanation, here it is from his most recent book. I wouldn’t normally quote so much text verbatim, but I think it’s crucial for understanding Ehrman’s theory of the transmission of the Jesus tradition.

If the authors [of the gospels] were not eyewitnesses and were not from Palestine and did not even speak the same language as Jesus, where did they get their information? Here again, there is not a lot of disagreement among critical scholars. After Jesus died, his followers came to believe he was raised from the dead, and they saw it as their mission to convert people to the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus were the death and resurrection of God’s messiah and that by believing in his death and resurrection a person could have eternal life. The early Christian “witnesses” to Jesus had to persuade people that Jesus really was the messiah from God, and to do that they had to tell stories about him. So they did. They told stories about what happened at the end of his life—the crucifixion, the empty tomb, his appearances to his followers alive afterward. They also told stories of his life before those final events—what he taught, the miracles he performed, the controversies he had with Jewish leaders, his arrest and trial, and so on. (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Ehrman starts by presupposing an original set of eyewitness testimonies. He assumes the disciples really saw and heard Jesus and then told stories about him after his death. Note that Ehrman doesn’t necessarily believe that the resurrection stories were literally, historically true; rather, the disciples came to believe they were true.

These stories circulated. Anyone who converted to become a follower of Jesus could and did tell the stories. A convert would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor; if she converted, she would tell her husband; if he converted, he would tell his business partner; if he converted, he would take a business trip to another city and tell his business associate; if he converted, he would tell his wife; if she converted, she would tell her neighbor . . . and on and on. Telling stories was the only way to communicate in the days before mass communication, national media coverage, and even significant levels of literacy (at this time only about 10 percent of the population could read and write, so most communication was oral). (HJBG, p. 47, emphasis mine)

Long time waiting to feel the sound

He imagines Christianity slowly spreading orally from person to person, one on one, with people telling stories about Jesus in their own words. Still, the presumption is that the stories came from sources that were originally reliable. He writes:
read more »


2014-04-06

Is Oral Tradition Really Behind the Gospels? — another Kelber argument considered

by Neil Godfrey

henaut1This post continues with the series on Barry W. Henaut’s Oral Tradition and the Gospels, a critique of the assumption that oral traditions lie behind the gospel narratives. I have added to Henaut’s case more extensive quotations from works he is criticizing so we can have a better appreciation of both sides of the question.

Oral Clustering and Literary Texts

Kelber argues (rightly) that a hallmark of oral style is the clustering of genres, the sort of thing we can see in the Gospel of Mark where we have clusters of miracle stories together (2.1-3.6), clusters of parables (4.1-37), apophthegmatic controversy stories (11.27-12.37) and logoi (sayings) (13.1-37).

This sounds logical enough, and Kelber points to studies by W. J. Ong, E. Havelock and A. B. Lord (links are to the relevant works online or information about the works) to establish his point that oral communicators tend to group similar types of material for easier recall.

But such oral grouping of sayings brings with it a casualty when an author attempts to put it all in writing. An easy flowing chronological tale is easily lost. This is what lies behind the monotonous use of “and” (kai) in Mark as tale after tale is strung together with little carefully arranged narrative structure (so argues Kelber). It also explains

  • the preference in the text for direct speech;
  • the dominance of the historical present;
  • the lack of ‘artistically reflected prose’;
  • the incomplete characterization of Jesus;
  • the way the narrative is little more than a simple series of events;
  • the preference for the concrete over the abstract.

Kelber classifies the various stories in the Gospel of Mark into Heroic Tales, Polarization Stories and Didactic Stories. The distinctive patterns in each of these types, and the way these types are clustered together, he argues, testifies to them being derived from oral sources.

read more »


Daniel’s end time prophecies in context: 1

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Horsley in his 2007 publication, Scribes, Visionaries, and the Politics of Second Temple Judea, alerts us to ancient Mesopotamian prophetic texts that have remarkable similarities to our well-known Book of Daniel. I find it most interesting to read these other texts in order to appreciate better the context and nature of our canonical book that has played a key role in New Testament literature and subsequent apocalyptic and millenarian beliefs.

Recall Daniel 11, that detailed prophecy of the king of the north moving against the king of the south and the king of the south rising up and the manipulation of powers by flatteries etc etc etc, all a detailed “prophecy” of the political struggles between the Seleucid (Syrian) and Ptolemaic (Egyptian) empires over the region of Judea. . . . Interestingly there is a remarkably similar (generically and stylistically) type of prophecy from Hellenistic Babylon, an Akkadian text known as the Dynastic Prophecy. It’s survives in a fragmented state, but we can see its striking similarity to the kind of text we read in Daniel 11:2-45 nonetheless. I have copied this from the text found on Scribd, apparently derived from publications by Grayson and Longman.

[...] me. [...] me. [...] left. [...] great. [...]

seed. [...] he sees.

[...] a later day. [...] will be overthrown. [...]

will be annihilated. [...] Assyria. [...] silver (?) and [...] will attack and [...] Babylon, will attack and [...] will be overthrown. [...] will life up and [...] will come/go [...] will seize [...] he will destroy [...] will shroud [...] he (=Nabonidus) will bring ex[tensive booty] into Babylon. [...] he (= the Achaemenids/Elam) will decorate the Esagil and the Ezida . [...] he will build the palace of Babylon. [...] Nippur to Babylon. He will exercise kingship [for x year]s.

. . . .

read more »


2014-04-05

Oral Tradition Taken for Granted (continued)

by Neil Godfrey

henaut1Let’s continue with this series that I left hanging nearly a year ago now. . . .

We’re looking at the way oral tradition has been assumed to lie behind many of the Gospel narratives about Jesus and at the arguments that have been marshaled to support that assumption. We are basing these posts upon the published version of a the doctoral thesis by Barry W. Henaut, Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4.

The last post in the series finished with:

To the one who has ears, Hear!

Ancient literature was mostly written to be read aloud for the ear.

Rabbis apparently even opposed silent reading since hearing the sounds of the words was thought to aid memory and guard against distortions of meaning.

But this raises a problem for the models of faithful oral transmission.

If ancient literature was primarily a medium for the ear, and the authors of this literature constructed their texts to appeal to the ear, then how can we be sure that what they are writing is the original word that has come down to them? Or what hope have we of knowing that at no point of the oral transmission did someone change the original words to make the idea more palatable to the ear?

We move on now to Henaut’s discussion of another landmark scholar in the field of oral vis à vis textual gospel studies, Werner Kelber. Kelber raised serious questions about the models that had been proposed by Bultmann and Gerhardsson who were discussed in the earlier posts. (Bultmann and Gerhardsson had argued that sayings of Jesus had a particular Sitz im Leben (each saying had its own particular social setting) and that communities were repositories of oral traditions and safeguarding their long-term consistency. read more »


2014-04-03

God’s Apocalyptic Bluff

by Neil Godfrey

The Book of Enoch, The Watchers, 1:3-7

_end-of-the-world_2433119bThe Holy Great One will come forth from His dwelling,
And the eternal God will tread upon the earth, (even) on Mount Sinai,
[And appear from His camp]
And appear in the strength of His might from the heaven of heavens.

And all shall be smitten with fear
And the Watchers shall quake,
And great fear and trembling shall seize them unto the ends of the earth.

And the high mountains shall be shaken,
And the high hills shall be made low,
And shall melt like wax before the flame

And the earth shall be wholly rent in sunder,
And all that is upon the earth shall perish,
And there shall be a judgement upon all (men).

Matthew 24:29

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken

Revelation 6:12-17

And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;

And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.

And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains;

And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:

For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?

What does all this mean? Such apocalyptic had a long heritage, as passages from Enoch (above) and Micah, Jeremiah and Isaiah (below) testify. How did the authors expect readers/hearers to interpret such language?

Again from Richard Horsley, this time from Scribes, Visionaries and the Politics of Second Temple Judea . . . 

read more »


2014-04-02

The One-Liner Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Horsley has produced a couple of books I have found far more enlightening than his earlier work on bandits and prophets in first-century Judea. One of these is Scribes, Visionaries and the Politics of Second Temple Judea from 2007; the other, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel, 2012. One of several points that has hit me already from these two works is a deeper appreciation of the literary way the Gospels convey the sayings of Jesus.

Take the Sermon on the Mount. I think we all know that Jesus could not really have stood up and pronounced a long list of aphorisms the way Matthew depicts. So we hear the more learned ones explaining to us that Matthew was recording a summary of the sorts of things Jesus often said.

But stop and think for a minute. Aren’t the evangelists (authors of the gospels) supposed to be writing something akin to a history or biography? And weren’t ancient historians known for the way they would construct speeches they believed were “true to life” or “appropriate” or “realistic” in the mouth of certain historical characters? But that’s not what we read in the gospels when it comes to the speeches of Jesus. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain are anything but reconstructed “speeches”.

Rather, they read like a chapter or so from the Book of Proverbs. Not like speeches. Jesus is not “preaching” about forgiveness and an appropriate speech is not constructed for any such message. Jesus simply delivers a proverb or saying or edict, brief enough to be remembered and recorded in a list of one-liners. It’s not unlike the way he is portrayed as speaking in the Gospel of Thomas when he drops line after line of mystery saying.

The evangelists — at least the Synoptic ones (Matthew, Mark and Luke) — are not even trying to reconstruct speeches of Jesus.

They are writing a set of one-liner sayings.

Okay, but what is the problem with this? Horsley puts his finger on it exactly:

read more »


2014-03-31

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 10: A Different Perspective on the Corinthian Controversy

by Roger Parvus

.

When I finished the previous post of the series, I expected to go on to a discussion of the eschatology in chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. But while working on that, I quickly realized that chapters 1 through 4 of the letter should be examined first. They provide some necessary background on the situation in the church at Corinth.

So this post will consider these earlier chapters from the perspective of my hypotheses that the Paul who wrote the Corinthian letters was Simon of Samaria, his gospel was based on the Vision of Isaiah, and his letters were subsequently interpolated (as late as 130 CE) by a proto-orthodox Christian.

I have already discussed 1 Cor. 2:6-9 in part 7 of the series. My interpretation of that passage will be incorporated here into a view of the Corinthian controversy as a whole.

.

 

Disruptive Wisdom in the Church at Corinth

1 Corinthians begins with four chapters in which the Apostle expresses concern about some kind of wisdom that, in his absence, was being put forward by certain Christians at Corinth and was giving rise to factions in the church there. The nature of the troublesome wisdom is unclear but, from a consideration of the entire Corinthian correspondence, it seems to me most likely that it was the product of people laying claim to the gift of prophecy. Its proponents likely believed that their wisdom, like the Apostle’s own (1 Cor. 2:6-9), was revealed by God.

ellisAs we saw above, in the Pauline letters, and especially in 1 Corinthians (2, 12-14), certain believers have gifts of inspired speech and discernment. They are called pneumatics and, broadly speaking, they exercise the role of prophets. Among other manifestations they are said to speak ‘wisdom of God’ (2,7,13) or to be ‘wise’ (3,18; 6,5; cf. 14,29 diakrinein) or to have a ‘word of wisdom’ (12,8) and to speak ‘in knowledge’ or to ‘have knowledge’ or ‘a word of knowledge’ (8,10; 12,8; 14,6). The terms wisdom and knowledge are used of pneumatic gifts in other parts of the Pauline literature and occasionally they appear in tandem, both in Paul and elsewhere. (E. Earle Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity, p. 50)

The Apostle refers to the purveyors of the wisdom as fellow workers, but it becomes clear in the course of his presentation that he views at least some of them as competitors and has serious reservations about whether their teaching is in harmony with the gospel.

That gospel, as I proposed in parts 7 through 9, was likely derived from the Vision of Isaiah, and for the Apostle its truth was confirmed by the divine revelation that he himself had received. He has no comparable assurance for the suspect wisdom. Those pushing it apparently accepted, at least initially, the Apostle’s gospel beliefs, for without that minimal commonality it is hard to see how he could have allowed them to operate at all in his community. And he does say that they were building on the foundation— Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11, 1:23 and 2:2)—that he himself “as a wise master builder” (1 Cor. 3:10) had laid down in Corinth. He makes clear that use of that foundation is non-negotiable:  “No man can lay a foundation other than the one that is there” (1 Cor. 3:11).  To try to substitute another would in effect destroy the edifice, and “if any man destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that man; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy” (1 Cor. 3:17). But building on the right foundation is not enough. What is built on it must be able to survive the coming conflagration and the Apostle seems to doubt that the materials being used by his competitors at Corinth will pass that test.

quote_begin Thus we are apparently dealing with wisdoms inspired by different spirits and, according to Simon/Paul, only one of them—his—certainly comes from God. quote_end

The Apostle’s repeated belittlement of mere “wisdom of word” and “wisdom of man” and “wisdom of the world” seems to be an indirect putdown of what his competitors are teaching. His wisdom is from God. He is not so sure about the source of theirs.

Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not in wisdom of word, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor. 1:17)

We have not received the spirit of the world but the spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. And we speak about them not with words taught by the wisdom of man, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms. (1 Cor. 2:12-13)

We speak wisdom among the perfect, but wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, who are coming to nought. But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, that hidden wisdom which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this world understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love him.’  (1Cor. 2:6-9)

The “wisdom of man,” as the Apostle uses the expression, is an inferior wisdom whose source is merely “the spirit of man that is in him” (1 Cor. 2:11). And the source of the “wisdom of this world” is “the spirit of the world” (1 Cor. 2:12), i.e., the ignorant angel who together with his spirit underlings are the “rulers of this world” (1 Cor. 2:6). Later, as the situation further deteriorates at Corinth and the Apostle comes to view the competing wisdom as “a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4), he supplies the name of the angel. He is “Satan” who “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). Thus we are apparently dealing with wisdoms inspired by different spirits and, according to Simon/Paul, only one of them—his—certainly comes from God.

.

The Eschatological Theme of the Wisdom of this World

read more »


2014-03-28

Astrotheology, A Religious Belief System (as per D.M. Murdock/Acharya S)

by Neil Godfrey

TabulaThe more I have read of the works of Acharya S (aka D.M. Murdock) and the more engagement I have had with those who fervently advocate her views the more I have suspected that some form of cult-like belief system lies beneath their surface appearances. Part of the reason for my suspicions has been the vitriolic reactions on their part against any attempt to honestly critique their views and engage them in argument that consistently follows the norms of scholarly or “scientific” reasoning. I have been portrayed in some very colorful terms by both Acharya and those I believe it is fair to say are her followers. In effect I have been lumped together with others as deliberately closed-minded, bigoted and out to lyingly slander them. My record of defending Acharya against some of the worst insults I have read on the web counts for nothing.

Finally one of Acharya’s fairly prominent online supporters, Robert Tulip, has “come out” and made it very clear that my suspicions were right all along. Astrotheology — the view they propagate — is a form of religious belief. They believe as strongly as any fundamentalist that they are right and anyone who does not agree with them after they explain it all is perverse or willfully blind. Expressions of disagreement are interpreted as expressions of hostility or even persecution.

And like religious cults, they curry good relations with prominent or respectable names that they believe will give their cause a benign public face. Anyone with public standing among those they seek to influence and who has had a positive word to say about Acharya’s books is promoted as a witness that they really are a genuinely scholarly (even scientific) group of truth-seekers. I have finally come to believe they are as scientific as Scientology; their efforts to claim to follow the scientific method are a falsehood. I doubt that people like Earl Doherty really do understand exactly what it is their names are being used to support when they insist that such people have made supportive comments about their publications.

My full awareness of all of this did not come quickly. I have hoped my suspicions were not true often enough. If I can be shown to be mistaken I would greatly welcome it and apologize for this post and withdraw it.

What finally led me to give up any remaining doubts I had about their religious or cult status was a series of posts on the EarlyWritings Forum. The most recent of these posts, under the title Loaves and Fishes, were prompted by pressure from a few of us for Robert to demonstrate the scientific or scholarly basis for his rejection of normal (“midrashic”/literary-critical) explanations for the miracle of the loaves and fishes in the Gospels and his belief that this narrative was written as a code of some sort for “astrotheology” beliefs. The result is the epitome of parallelomania (as I have explained this through Sandmel’s definitions a couple of times recently); but the worst part comes at the end when it is made very clear that Robert himself takes his interpretation as a personal belief system along with the fundamentalist-like view that anyone who fails to share his enlightenment is willfully perverse.

Here is Robert Tulip’s explication of the Gospels’ Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. After reading this I finally realized I have been wasting my time taking many of his remarks testifying to an interest in the hypothetico-deductive method at face value. He — and I can only presume the same applies to Acharya S herself — are evidently not interested in scholarly approaches to Christian origins and really are about peddling a quasi-religious type of belief-system.

I have bolded the text that I consider to be the evidence that “astrotheology” as advocated here is indeed a genuine personal belief-system that shuts down any possibility of genuinely scholarly engagement and criticism.

At the end of the post I add a couple of scholarly reviews of David Ulansey’s argument that it was the ancient discovery of the precession of the equinoxes that prompted the rise of Mithraism and possibly even Christianity.

read more »


2014-03-27

James McGrath the Parallelomaniac

by Neil Godfrey

Professor James McGrath is a parallelomaniac. Every time he sees an argument for a parallel that he does not like or from which the author draws an uncomfortable conclusion he claims that the parallel is actually a parallel to Samuel Sandmel’s notion of “parallelomania”.

Samuel Sandmel introduced the term “parallelomania” into English-speaking New Testament studies and explained it as that “extravagance” where one took excerpts out of context from some source and applied them willy-nilly to a text under study. It could also include one making much ado about real parallels if they were also quite meaningless (e.g. We would not be surprised if two different Jewish texts spoke about God and Moses, so we cannot assume one is copying from the other in such a case.)

I spelled all this out in my recent post explaining the difference between legitimate parallels and parallelomania. The same post links to the original 1962 article by Samuel Sandmel.

How do we know a parallel is potentially legitimate and not “parallelomania”? Sandmel was very clear. Detailed study is the most essential criterion of a genuinely plausible parallel; the actual words used, the syntactical structures, the contexts, the larger argument structure, the literary culture in which the act of copying is alleged to have occurred, etc. Sandmel even wrote that he encouraged such studies that helped us identify genuine cases of literary borrowing.

What he warned against was taking excerpts (words and phrases) out of their contexts and fortuitously applying them to the target text. I have been showing (in some comments here but especially in discussions on the EarlyWritings forum) that this is the flawed methodology that in many cases makes D.M. Murdock’s (astrotheology’s) arguments invalid.

Here is a classic example of how parallelomania works. It comes from James McGrath: read more »


2014-03-26

Some Thoughts on the Nature of the Evidence and the Historicity of Jesus

by Tim Widowfield

You have the right to remain silent

Over on The Bible and Interpretation web site, James McGrath once again takes up his jousting lance to do battle against the big, bad mythicists. He raises an interesting point:

If we were to combine a number of recent and not-so-recent proposals related to Jesus, we could depict him as a gay hermaphrodite mamzer, conceived when his mother was raped by a Roman soldier, who grew up to pursue multiple vocations as a failed messiah, a failed prophet, a magician, and/or a mediocre teacher of Stoic ethics. From the perspective of traditional Christian dogma, one imagines that for Jesus never to have existed would be slightly easier to stomach (or at least, no more difficult) than some of the claims made by those who are convinced that he was a historical figure, and propose interpretations of the historical evidence which disagree with and even undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety. (emphasis mine)

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant, Prussian philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s the question: Is a mythical Jesus more palatable than a historical reconstruction that imagines Jesus as something other than the Son of God and savior of the world? To answer that question, we might consider the difference between descriptions of an object versus the question of its existence. Emanuel Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument comes immediately to mind. Kant claimed existence is not a predicate, but is categorically different from other properties.

You may not agree with Kant, but more practical considerations come to mind. The historicity of Jesus, whether argued for or merely presumed, must precede the discussion of who or what Jesus was. It necessarily forms the foundation of the ensuing arguments. If we cannot demonstrate that Jesus probably existed, all subsequent arguments are moot. Hence, Christians may intensely dislike reconstructions of Jesus that would tend to “undermine the traditional claims of Christian creeds and piety,” but I think they would dislike even more the idea that the evidence calls into question his very existence as a historical figure.

A story problem

And so, here we are again. All roads lead back to the question of the nature of the evidence. If you will indulge me for a minute or two, I’d like to present a parable.

read more »


2014-03-25

What The Hell Do People Believe In If They Don’t Believe In God?

by Neil Godfrey

Stephen Fry explains what the meaning of life is to him as a nonreligious person. In three minutes.

ht/Upworthy


2014-03-24

Maurice Casey’s Mind “Boggles” Reading Thomas L. Thompson’s Messiah Myth

by Neil Godfrey
Cover of "The Messiah Myth: The Near East...

Cover via Amazon

Maurice Casey (Jesus: Evidence and Argument Or Mythicist Myths?) critiques Thomas L. Thompson’s The Messiah Myth without giving his readers any idea of its stated purpose or overall argument. I suspect Casey himself did not know what it was about and could not explain its argument if he tried since he had made up his mind before reading it that it was an attempt to prove there was no historical Jesus.

Casey is already on record as being quite perplexed when he encounters new perspectives on old problems and he remains true to form when confronted with Thomas L. Thompson’s work.

I will explain what Thompson’s was attempting to achieve with the book in a moment but notice that Casey from the start faults it for not being about what he thought it should be about:

A supposedly scholarly attempt to cast doubt on the historicity of the teaching of Jesus is an extraordinary book by the Old Testament ‘scholar’ Thomas L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth, published in 2005. It demonstrates lack of knowledge of first-century Judaism and of New Testament scholarship, and has remarkably little to say about Jesus. (Jesus: Evidence and Argument, p. 221)

Casey cannot even bring himself to fully acknowledge Thompson’s credentials as an Old Testament scholar of high international standing. What Casey means by The Messiah Myth‘s “demonstration of lack of knowledge of first-century Judaism and NT scholarship” and its paucity of information about Jesus is that the book is not about Casey’s assumptions of what first-century Judaism looked like, nor is it about NT scholarship or Jesus as these are traditionally addressed in studies on the historical Jesus. Casey might as well have added that the work “demonstrates a lack of knowledge of” knitting and abseiling.

Thompson’s book is about the messiah myth as it is found throughout ancient Middle Eastern literature. It is an attempt to offer a new perspective for how scholars might approach the Bible as historians. Too rarely biblical scholars have stopped to ask if the authors of the historical books of the Bible had the same sense of past history as we do. The first task of historians should be to fully grasp the literary and theological nature of the works they are studying. Full justice to that enquiry can only be accomplished if the historian first and foremost has a thorough grasp of comparable literary and theological sources throughout that region’s cultural history. Before we assume that the narratives in the biblical works are windows to historical events it is better first to acquaint oneself with other literature of that cultural region and what it often meant to convey when speaking of the past.

The assumption that the narratives of the Bible are accounts of the past asserts a function for our texts that needs to be demonstrated as it competes with other more apparent functions.

. . . . Are archaeologists and historians dealing with the same kind of past as the Bible does? This, I think, is the central question of the current debate about history and the Bible, rather than the questions that have dominated. Can biblical stories be used to write a modern history of the ancient past — whether of the individuals or of the events in which they participate? . . . The Bible uses . . . historical information for other purposes, in the way that literature has always used what was known of the past. (The Messiah Myth, p. x)

At this point I think I can justly point to some recent posts I have written about the nature of ancient historiography. Ancient historians were quite capable of fabricating stories about the past when it suited their ideological or pedagogical purposes. Those fabrications could well be considered “true” if they were written “true to life”, that is, realistically. read more »